Athletic Bilbao: Traditionalists or something more sinister?

Local Lads: Every Player in this picture comes from the Basque Country

Local Lads: Every Player in this picture comes from the Basque Country

Basque club Athletic Bilbao are very famous in Spain and this is due mainly to two reasons: the first is that they enjoyed good degree of success a long time ago and were actually title contenders along with Atletico and Real Madrid although nowadays they appear more likely to be involved in a relegation scrap. The second reason is the one that gets them more attention around the world – the club has stayed true to local roots and only ever had Basque players playing for them; making the club one of a kind. Up to a point local Basque rivals Osasuna also only signed Basque players before finally changing their tact and deciding that the way forward was to sign foreigners. Which begs the question; why are the Basque clubs so proud of who they are to the degree that they will only look to sign Basques?

Unlike England, Spain is a country where different regions almost consider themselves to be different countries and speak their own dialects which are quite different to general Spanish. Many of the regions have a number of locals who consider themselves not to be Spanish but simply a national from that region (like a Catalonian or Galician for example) and there have been calls for many of the regions to be declared separate countries though this has always been shot down. Spain’s terrorism problems have stemmed from all this with the Basque separatist movement ETA having been eager to get the Basque country referred to as a completely different entity to Spain. Such patriotism is fierce and over the top and it’s something that seems to go into the football clubs too, particularly Athletic, which makes their remarkable habits somewhat more sinister.

And the habit of only signing Basques is remarkable as Athletic have stuck with this habit throughout their history regardless of how they are doing – even relegation (which has never occurred to the club) would not make them change their ways. The restrictions are intense though and Athletic are forced to regularly raid the youth teams of all their local rivals to ensure they get the best Basque players playing for them – this is why they paid 5 million euros for a 17 year old Javi Martinez a few years back, the club can’t afford to let Basque talent escape from them. Athletic have the advantage though that their youth team is good and they often get top quality players coming through and are able to boast the likes of Asier Del Horno, Fran Yeste and Joseba Etxeberria within the ranks of those who’ve come through the ranks at the club to excel.

Much like weaker international teams try to get players to change allegiance to their nationality, Athletic undermine their policy a bit with their habit of finding foreign or Spanish players with a Basque family member down the line and allowing them to play for the club despite the claims that all players of theirs were to be born and bred in the Basque country. The club probably would have gone down in the past though without these additions to the club and one of the club’s players who’s arguably had the most successful career of the Athletic lot in a good while, Bixente Lizarazu, was a Frenchman who has Basque descent and he was loved by the Athletic supporters despite not even being from Spain.

There is a certain footballing romance about being able to succeed with just local players – it is a claim that any club in the world would be proud of having and it has led to a lot of praise of Athletic in the past. Criticism has also come the clubs way though as their motives have been questioned, which is a reasonable enough thing to happen given the unique nature of the way the club runs. Athletic’s habit of refusing to sign any non-Basques could be perceived as xenophobic and seen as more sinister than them simply wanting to give a chance to locals. It is quite likely that the original policy stemmed from the over-zealous feelings of being Basque that led ETA to plant bombs around Spain and that makes the club’s policy a lot less admirable.

The fact that Osasuna and Real Sociedad, fellow Basque clubs who have spent a lot of time in Spain’s top flight, both abandoned the idea of only having Basque players tells us that surviving only on Basque players isn’t really a good enough way to succeed and suggests that Athletic will one day give up on their scheme in order to bring their glory days back. There’s no sign of it though and the club’s remained stubborn; fiercely protective of their Basque roots. Paying high prices for Basque teenagers will have to be resorted to again in the hopes that the players turn out to be quite good in their later years and it’s obviously not the easiest or most ideal system to work with. Patriotism can be good but it can easily be taken too far, have Athletic stepped too far and simply become xenophobes?